Creativity / Eccentrics / Incompleteness / Philosophy / Quality / Writing

Gaps of Writing

File:Papyrus of Plato Phaedrus.jpg

Socrates, it seems, never wrote a single line. What we know about him comes from the second hand accounts of Aristophanes, Xenophon, and Plato. It looks like Socrates refused to write.

A possible explanation for this can be found in Plato’s dialog Phaedrus. What Plato puts into Socrates mouth on the topic of writing there might actually reflect the opinions of the historic Socrates on this topic (Phaedrus, 275d, 275e).

Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself.

Instead, according to Plato, Socrates prefers the dialectic method. In talking with people, he can answer questions and adapt what he is saying to the people he is talking to, something a written text cannot do.

Instead of piling up knowledge in written form, the ideal here seems to be wisdom, understood as a “living and breathing word of him who knows” (276a). Wisdom was passed from teacher to student and the student aimed for wisdom, not just knowledge. In its beginnings, philosophy was philo-sophia, the love of wisdom. The wise knows how and when to apply or not to apply the bits of knowledge, and is able to extend the knowledge if required.

In the human mind, knowledge is part of an active, creative process that can apply, adapt and modify it. The knowledge is always incomplete but it is extensible. The core of knowledge we have at any time may be thought of as surrounded by a more fluid “atmosphere” of dynamically changing thoughts and processes of experimentation constantly modifying the knowledge core.

What can be written down, on the other hand, is always only a snapshot of some part of the incomplete knowledge. What is being lost in writing is the creativity and the wisdom.

One trend in the history of western philosophy seems to be that people attempted to fill the gaps in the always incomplete knowledge that can be grasped in texts by replacing vague concepts by exact ones and by creating formal theories that contain the rules of how to apply the knowledge in an explicit form. The end point of this development may be seen in scientific theories trying to capture large parts of reality in formal texts that can be written down and from which specific statements about reality can be derived according to explicit rules and procedures. In institutions, this trend leads to a belief in formalized and bureaucratic procedures and processes. In philosophy, this trend leads to analytical philosophy. From the love of wisdom, philosophy turns into dealing with texts.

But when we investigate us humans, our minds, our societies and our cultures, this approach fails, or at least it is limited. Humans are creative and can invent new things outside the scope of any given theory. Any description of human culture and thinking we can write down will therefore be incomplete. Socrates, who had turned away from the philosophy of nature and instead started investigating the human world, seems to have had some understanding of this, so he talked, but refused to write.

To an extent, wisdom has fallen from grace among modern western philosophers, especially of the academic variety. But if we appreciate the central role of creativity in the human being and acknowledge the inevitable incompleteness of explicit knowledge, we might rehabilitate the goal of achieving wisdom to its rightful position, so that the dead words will come alive.

(The picture is from It shows a fragment of an ancient papyrus with a section of Plato’s dialog Phaedrus).

9 thoughts on “Gaps of Writing

  1. Brilliant post. I didn’t know that about Socrates. Fascinating.

    Your observation was spot on, but it perhaps missed a line: Wisdom doesn’t sell. It can’t be qualified and that means it’s unmarketable. I read recently that you stand no chance of getting an economic paper published if it doesn’t included an equation, and the more confusing the equation the better your chances. That might be a fact, but it is also a fact that the study of economics did not begin as a math-orientated science, rather a social one. We live in a world where knowledge is produced as per demand, packaged, and sold for consumption. Socrates, i’m afraid to say, wouldn’t be impressed with how we have spent his wisdom.

    • Indeed. His answer can be read in Plato’s dialogs “Protagoras” (about the sophists, who where selling their advice to the elites, what we call “consultants” today, and in the “Gorgias” about rhetoric. And of course, Socrates got in many peoples ways (and on their nerves), so they plotted against him and killed him.
      That wisdom does not sell is part of our professional and academic culture, and that is part of the problem (see also my article on “Two Meanings of Quality” that I have referred to in this article, where I opposed the two approaches as the Confucian and the Daoist. The Dao that can be named is not the real dao… That is the same idea.
      The problems started with Plato already, and then with Aristotle. My view is that there are vague ideas, concepts or chuncks of knowledge that are always incomplete, but are adapted to new situations. There is no complete concept of “Virtue”, say (one of Socrates favorite topics). Plato instead thought that they existed, as his famous “forms”, so he tried to objectify what cannot be objectified. I think by doing so, he put a lot of the following tradition on a wrong track.
      And of course, my observation missed a line, because it is a text and therefore is incomplete :-). There is much more about these topics on my mind. But my experience is that blog articles should be short or nobody will read them. This one is already at the limit.

    • I have been reading that book in school, but not completely, only parts, and that is long ago. But I stumbled upon it again yesterday when I was searching for the online-text of Phaedrus because Pirsig is using that name in his book. I read what is written on the book in Wikipedia, and yes, you are right, it looks like I should read that book, its looks like Pirsig was thinking into similar directions like me. Quality is a topic that interests me. In this article, I haven’t really written about it directly although I put the article into that category. But I linked an older article where I wrote something about it, because the topic is definitely linked to what I am thinking about here.

    • I just noticed that in a comment on my article “Two meanings of Quality”, which I reference from this article, Harrie Neyland also hinted at that book. 🙂

  2. Pingback: There is no wisdom without love. | philosiblog

  3. Hi Nannus…. an excellent post…
    I wanted to say something about this excerpt from “Phaedrus”:
    “Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing”.
    Firstly I like the image of a painting and solemn silence… Also when Socrates says that words always say only one and the same thing.
    Clearly the ideas of writing here are derogatory… Language is most times polisemic, remaining open to different meanings.
    As to Socrates dialectics, I´d say it was his main weapon against the Sophists, right?. In its specific shape, the Socratic maieutics was a major legacy, I´d say.-
    Sending all my best wishes! 🙂

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